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Audubon at Sea

The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon

With a Foreword by Subhankar Banerjee

Audubon at Sea

The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon

With a Foreword by Subhankar Banerjee
This one-of-a-kind, lavishly illustrated anthology celebrates Audubon’s connection to the sea through both his words and art.
 
The American naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) is widely remembered for his iconic paintings of American birdlife. But as this anthology makes clear, Audubon was also a brilliant writer—and his keen gaze took in far more than creatures of the sky. Culled from his published and unpublished writings, Audubon at Sea explores Audubon’s diverse observations of the ocean, the coast, and their human and animal inhabitants. With Audubon expert Christoph Irmscher and scholar of the sea Richard J. King as our guides, we set sail from the humid expanses of the American South to the shores of England and the chilly landscapes of the Canadian North. We learn not only about the diversity of sea life Audubon documented—birds, sharks, fish, and whales—but also about life aboard ship, travel in early America, Audubon’s work habits, and the origins of beloved paintings. As we face an unfathomable loss of seabirds today, Audubon’s warnings about the fragility of birdlife in his time are prescient and newly relevant.

Charting the course of Audubon’s life and work, from his birth in Haiti to his death in New York City, Irmscher and King’s sweeping introduction and carefully drawn commentary confront the challenges Audubon’s legacy poses for us today, including his participation in American slavery and the thousands of birds he killed for his art. Rounded out by hundreds of historical and ornithological notes and beautiful illustrations, and with a foreword by distinguished photographer and conservationist Subhankar Banerjee, Audubon at Sea is the most comprehensively annotated collection of Audubon’s work ever published.

352 pages | 20 color plates, 38 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Biography and Letters

Biological Sciences: Conservation, Natural History

History: Environmental History

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Reviews

"While of course best-known for his definitive depictions of American birdlife, John James Audubon also wrote about his extensive travels at sea, from the American South to the shores of England and the frozen Canadian North. This is as much an ecological account as a narrative of his travels, however, with Audubon's concerns for the natural world still relevant today."

Bookseller

“These excellent selections are a wonderful reminder of why Audubon’s writing deserves to be more widely read. Audubon at Sea is a delightful, captivating book, one that ranges to different regions and seasons, and features not only birds but fish, marine mammals, and many passages of interest concerning fishing, hunting, and collecting practices. Irmscher and King’s expertise is impressive, and their introductions are helpful, informative, and beautifully written. The notes are also truly remarkable: extremely well-informed, instructive, and detailed. This is a superb read.”

Michael P. Branch, professor of literature and the environment, University of Nevada, Reno, author of "On the Trail of the Jackalope"

“A must-read for lovers of the sea and of avian species plying its waters and gracing its shores—this timely, eloquent collaboration between an Audubon scholar and a noted writer on the sea is a plea to save not only birds and their habitats but also wildlife and planet Earth. In Audubon at Sea, Irmscher and King offer a fascinating porthole to a new perspective on the brilliant artist-naturalist and nature writer as well as his portrayals of waterbirds. Reconsidering Audubon’s triumphs and human failings with novel insights, the book celebrates the waterbirds of his Birds of America against a historical maritime and scientific backdrop. In the process, it makes a significant contribution to Audubon studies and underlines, beyond the so-called fallacy of the inexhaustible, the acute loss in biodiversity that threatens the extinction of avifauna.”

Roberta J. M. Olson, curator and author of numerous books, including "Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for ‘The Birds of America’" and two forthcoming on the artist-naturalist

Audubon at Sea shines a bright light on, and makes visible, three overlooked but significant aspects of Audubon’s work and legacy: his writings on waterbirds as they evolved from imperfect to polished and lyrical prose; his seabird drawings, like the unforgettable ‘Gannet’; and a new focus especially on the seabirds that are now in peril even if they remain out of our sight. The book adds a significant new chapter in our understanding and appreciation of Audubon as an imperfect and troubled nineteenth-century polymath—an artist, ornithologist, writer. Audubon’s work will live on in new debates and conversations, in which Audubon at Sea will play an important role.”

Subhankar Banerjee, from the foreword

Table of Contents

Foreword by Subhankar Banerjee
Sources for the Texts
Introduction

I. Journal of a Sea Voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool aboard the Delos (1826)

II. Ornithological Biography (1831–1839)
Southern Waters
  A Long Calm at Sea
  The Florida Keys
  The Florida Keys (Part 2)
  The Brown Pelican and The Mangrove
  The Turtlers
  Black Skimmer or Razor-billed Shearwater
  Death of a Pirate
  The Frigate Pelican
  The Sooty Tern
  The Wreckers of Florida
  American Flamingo
  Wilson’s Plover
  St John’s River in Florida
Mid-Atlantic Waters
  The American Oyster-Catcher
  The Fish Hawk or Osprey and The Weak Fish
  Little Guillemot
  The Long-billed Curlew
Western Waters
  Black-footed Albatross
  Gigantic Fulmar
New England and Atlantic Canada
  The Bay of Fundy
  Common Gannet
  The Eggers of Labrador
  The Foolish Guillemot
  The Great Black-backed Gull
  The Wandering Shearwater
  Cod-Fishing
  The Razor-billed Auk
  The Common Cormorant
  The Puffin
  Great Auk
  Wilson’s Petrel

III. Journal of a Collecting Voyage from Eastport to Labrador aboard the Ripley (1833)
Coda
Acknowledgments
Index

Excerpt

Introduction
 
For anyone who reads about it today, the scene is heartbreaking, difficult to imagine. The setting: Eldey, a rocky, lonely island ten miles off the coast of southwestern Iceland, reachable only by boat, a rugged chunk of granite rising out of the sea. The date: June 3, 1844, by some accounts at least, though the exact day, month, or year would not have mattered to the birds, including a pair of great auks, likely the last in the world, who had made their home here. They were true survivors, descended from survivors: a volcanic eruption had forced their ancestors to leave their last home (another islet further to the south) and settle here. But there was nothing that had taught these large, flightless birds how to survive what happened on that day: the arrival of three Icelandic fishermen, Jón Brandsson, Sigurður Isleifsson, and Ketil Ketilsson. Abandoning their egg, which was cracked in the process, the adult birds ran as fast as they could. Isleifsson later recalled that the bird he pursued “walked like a man.” But the auks weren’t fast enough: the men strangled them.
Ten years earlier, the naturalist John James Audubon had drawn a pair of great auks. He was in London at the time, and all he had was a dead specimen and a sketchy report from his engraver’s brother, Henry Havell, who, a few years earlier, traveling from New York to England, had “hooked” a great auk and kept the bird on board for a while, for his own private amusement: “It walked very awkwardly, often tumbling over, bit every one within reach of its powerful bill, and refused food of all kinds.” Maybe it finally dawned on Henry that the bird, extracted roughly from its watery environment, was in distress. After a few days, he let it go.

Based on little more than another person’s memory and a museum specimen, Audubon’s drawing of the auks represented an imaginary world. He left it unfinished; the engraver Robert Havell Jr., Henry’s brother, fixed the position of the feet of the bird on the left and created an arctic landscape for the background. Audubon’s auks are silent sentinels in this empty world, one drifting on the water, while the other stands stock-still on a slab of rock. The ocean’s surface is ruffled, the waves cresting in elegant little hillocks, while the cliffs, leaning in and over the water, appear bathed in a light that seems to come from nowhere. Here the birds, not us, are the real residents. Except that they are not. Audubon already knew that these birds, killed first for their meat, then for down and pin feathers, and finally simply because they were rare, didn’t stand a chance. Frozen in timelessness, great auks were, for all he knew, gone from nature; even in Audubon’s fertile artistic imagination, they are little more than monuments to their own demise.

What happened on Eldey is a scene Audubon had known well, as both observer and participant, and he kept revisiting elements of it in his writing and at least implicitly in his art. As an artist, he sought to preserve birds for eternity; as a naturalist, he hunted them, killed them (by the barrelful), and often ate them, too. But birds were notoriously elusive, and none evaded his grasp more than waterbirds, which, in Audubon’s drama of frustrated possession, were a particular challenge and provocation: “The Land Bird flits from bush to bush, runs before you, and seldom extends its flight beyond the range of your vision,” wrote Audubon in the introduction to the third volume of Ornithological Biography, devoted exclusively to sea- and shorebirds. “It is very different with the Water Bird, which sweeps afar over the wide ocean, hovers above the surges, or betakes itself for refuge to the inaccessible rocks on the shore.”

Audubon’s reference here is to seabirds, waterbirds adapted to a marine environment: for sixty million years, they have circumnavigated the globe, survived the roughest weather on the planet, found their way over vast expanses of water with no landmarks to speak of, and hunted for food high in the skies and in the depths of the ocean. Comprising nearly 350 species worldwide, they are the most reliable indicators of the health of our oceans. Which is precisely why it was not an incidental fact when an assessment of population trends conducted in 2015 revealed a 69.7 percent decline of monitored populations over sixty years. Other studies have confirmed that seabirds seem twice as likely as landbirds to be threatened with extinction (28 percent) or decline (47 percent). Significantly, open-ocean birds such as the albatross, the frigatebird, the petrel, and the shearwater are generally worse off than birds that stick close to the coasts, a reflection of the fact that they have smaller clutch sizes and, thus, even small increases in mortality have bigger consequences.

The last auks of Eldey died at the hands of humans. We even know the names of the perpetrators. The killers of seabirds today are less visible, less identifiable. To single out only one of them: seabirds routinely mistake small bits of plastic for fish eggs. If half of the world’s seabirds ingest marine debris today, it is predicted that 99 percent of them will do so by 2050. Written almost two hundred years ago, Audubon’s essays about waterbirds conjure a world on the verge of becoming lost permanently; now, more than ever, they are important reminders of what it is that we need to save, if we want to save ourselves. The possibility of loss haunts the trajectory of the selections in this anthology, ranging from Audubon’s excitement over the richness of sea life during his 1826 voyage to England to the despair he felt during his 1833 voyage to Labrador, when he wrote, on July 21, “Nature herself is perishing.”
 
* * *
 
Born on an island, the son of a sea captain, Audubon, over the course of a life lived on two continents, made a total of twelve ocean crossings and dozens of passages around England and France and along the coastlines of North America, from Galveston, Texas, to the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador. He did so even though he was prone to debilitating bouts of mal de mer, abject seasickness. No wonder, perhaps, that he was also prone to inventing an alternative originfor himself, one that placed him firmly on land and not within walking distance of an ocean. In an autobiographical essay titled “Myself,” which he wrote around 1835 and never published, he claimed that his birth was an “enigma” to him and then fabricated a story that made Louisiana his birthplace, foreign enough to be credible, familiar enough to legitimize him as an American naturalist: “My father had large properties in Santo Domingo, and was in the habit of visiting frequently that portion of our Southern States called, and known by the name of, Louisiana, then owned by the French Government.” In Louisiana, Jean Audubon had married, he went on, a beautiful “lady of Spanish extraction,” who “bore my father three sons and a daughter,—I being the youngest of the sons and the only one who survived extreme youth.” But their happiness didn’t last long: “My mother, soon after my birth, accompanied my father to the estate of Aux Cayes, on the island of Santo Domingo, and she was one of the victims during the ever-to-be-lamented period of the negro insurrection of that island.”

Since all of that would have taken place long before the Louisiana Purchase, Audubon had, in effect, given himself license to play fast and loose with the truth. But “Jean Rabin,” as he was then called, was in fact born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on April 26, 1785, in the southern port city Les Cayes. We know that his mother was not Spanish but a twenty-seven-year-old white chambermaid from the village Les Mazures in northern France, and that she died of a fever, not because of the Haitian Revolution. There is no evidence that Audubon’s father ever visited Louisiana. Audubon’s obfuscations did not stop with his imaginary birthplace. With one stroke of his pen, he also declared himself his father’s only surviving son from his imaginary marriage. At least on paper, he thus legitimized not only himself but also his half-sister, Rose, born April 29, 1787, the product of his father’s relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper, Catherine “Sanitte” Bouffard. The specter of his illegitimacy haunted Audubon his entire life; the somewhat clumsy cover-up offered at the beginning of “Myself ” was just another installment in a series of fantastical stories that have accumulated around Audubon’s origins, one of which—that he was Louis XVII, the lost Dauphin of France—was perpetuated even after his death.

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